Lost in the spinning swells of debate coverage was the news that, while in Florida preparing for the second debate, Vice President Al Gore purchased a copy of Sick Puppy, the most recent offering from the best-selling author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen.
We’ve heard an awful lot about Florida the swing state, where the good brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, was supposed to gift-wrap the condo vote and send it by special courier to the Electoral College. But the election pundits tell us the Sunshine State remains in sway, and it’s one of the major reasons we’ve got ourselves a race.
Still, I cling to the admittedly fictional notion that another Florida governor, Skink, might shake things up in the electoral arena.
Which brings us back to Hiaasen, and Sick Puppy. Skink is a recurring player — to call him a character would be redundant — in some of Hiaasen’s capers. His given name is Clinton Tyree, and once upon a time he was a football star, a hero of the war in Vietnam, and a populist governor of the state of Florida. He reflects Hiaasen’s own political tastes, and Hiaasen freely admits to creating him because he wishes such a man really existed.
Skink is a welcome antidote to the current real-life election scene, which Hiaasen sums up as “pretty grim.”
But forget the legal corruption of the McCain-Feingold era; it’s nothing compared to the graft-ridden state government Skink faced down. Not only did he refuse bribes — he recorded the larcenous offers and shared the audio with the FBI. Florida’s power structure responded by bribing everyone around him. After Skink cast the lone vote in opposition to turning a state natural area into timeshare condominiums, he walked off the job and into the anonymous fringes of what remains of the Florida wilderness. There he roams, living off fresh roadkill, until injustice, or his own brushes with misanthropic lunacy, call him into action.
Write on, Dude!
Since the death of curmudgeonly writer and wilderness defender Edward Abbey, enviros have needed a new George Hayduke. In a bizarre cultural feedback loop, Hayduke, Abbey’s original antihero, and his star vehicle, The Monkey Wrench Gang, are credited with helping to spur the creation of Earth First! That movement, and its various radical morphs, have in turn gone on to inspire a variety of fictional “eco-terrorists” from the pens of such writers as Ken Follett, P. D. James, and T. Coraghessan Boyle. The problem is, most of these earth warriors are merely literary devices.
But Hiaasen’s heart and instincts are too authentic to paint cardboard characters. In Skink, he’s given enviros a more inspirational proxy superhero, a Captain Planet for grownups. Skink brings to mind the real-life green crusader John Muir. In the opening sequence of Stormy Weather, Skink ties himself to the top of a bridge in the Florida Keys to commune with an incoming hurricane, reminiscent of Muir riding out a Sierra gale in the treetops. (Interestingly, Hiaasen didn’t know about Muir’s wild ride, and, though readers may spot a touch of Abbey in Hiaasen, and of Hayduke in Skink, Hiaasen says he wasn’t introduced to Abbey until after writing his third novel.)
While Skink has his PR defects, there are no doubt times when most environmental activists wish they could slip away from media kits, constructive engagement, and 501(c)3 choreography to shoot at all-terrain vehicles, roast a condo salesman’s rat-dog over an open fire, or humiliate litterbugs into eternal repentance. If you dare lay claim to this psychological profile, Skink should get your vote.
But for all you gentle readers, we must warn you that Hiaasen’s books — spirited stories about good and evil, wilderness and subdivisions, would-be heroes and witless hit men — are in fact a delicious subspecies of the detective novel. These capers have a cannily ecological sense of humor, but murder is an accepted — even expected — plot twist. While this might not coincide with this year’s version of family values, Hiaasen’s twisted comic sensibility gives the violence a Darwinian integrity. While the Hollywood murder market is plagued with high-test gun battles, Hiaasen kills his antagonists with mounted trophy marlins and overly amorous dolphins.
Making a Big Skink
Back to the elections, and how Skink might yet play a productive role in electoral politics. First, Skink as a running mate might be the key to securing the redneck vote. He does have a few character traits that might cause him trouble — he is described as “Marlin Perkins on PCP,” considers hurricanes holy events (“an eviction notice from God”), and spouts Moody Blues lyrics. His politics are decidedly liberal, but he is a crack shot with either rifle or handgun, and a very handy woodsman. Most important, perhaps, he is the bass master’s bass master. In Double Whammy, we learn that Skink spent his first decade of reclusion in Florida’s lake country living in a wooden shack loaded with books and cementing a relationship with Queenie, a largemouth bass who, at 29 pounds even, would shatter the existing record by nearly 7 pounds. Queenie so trusts Skink that she’ll swim into his hands. Certify that record and Skink could sew up the hook-and-bullet vote faster than you can say, “How about a cold one?”
Unfortunately, given the depths of Skink’s disillusionment, another run for public office seems unlikely. Perhaps a better role might be to send Jim Lehrer home and install Skink in the moderator’s chair for a new round of debates, with rules he sets himself. Perhaps he would take a cue from Stormy Weather, which is set in post-hurricane Florida. When Skink finds a tourist taking gleeful video footage of the carnage, he abducts him, fits him with an electroshocking obedience collar no doubt liberated from a happy labrador retriever, and takes him for a tour of primeval Florida. Whenever the tourist — who turns out to be an advertising executive — says something really stupid, Skink zaps him.
seems perfectly suited for the debate circuit: Whenever a candidate says something stupid, off-topic, prevaricating, vapid, or vague — or goes over his allotted time — Skink could press the button. Perhaps we could even make it more democratic: If a supermajority (two-thirds) of the live audience or even the viewing public feels a candidate has transgressed the bounds of fair play, he would get zapped. Talk about snap polling. (Promise this kind of punishment and you’d better believe Buchanan and Nader would be added to the dance card if only to share the joy.)
Still, better not let the Presidential Debate Commission see a copy of Sick Puppy, in which Skink meets Dick Artemis, a former Toyota salesman and now the development-loving governor of Florida. For transgressions I shall not divulge, Skink pulls down the man’s pants and, using a buzzard’s beak, scratches the word “SHAME” upon his buttocks.
As the pundits say, none of this seems very, well, presidential. But admit it: We’ve all been mad enough at politicians to imagine some form of vengeance that Skink would approve of.
So if politics-as-usual has you down, you might consider using Hiaasen as a pick-me-up, a pep talk for Election Day. (You have to trust a novelist whose other creative endeavors include two songs recorded by Warren Zevon, runner-up honors for the Pulitzer, and a book about Disney’s “creepy corporate culture” called Team Rodent.)
As Skink told Twilly Spree, the chief protagonist in Sick Puppy: “Son, I can’t tell you what to do with your life — hell, you’ve seen what I’ve done with mine. But I will tell you there’s probably no peace for people like you and me in this world. Somebody’s got to get angry or nothing gets fixed. That’s what we were put here for, to stay pissed off.”